Angel Nikolov leads the Sharks’ non-German European contingent as European elite hockey leagues head into the home stretch starting this week after the breaks for the Sweden Hockey Games and Swiss Cup tournaments.
Nikolov, the Sharks’ 2nd round pick in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft (37th overall), is a Czech defenseman plying his trade for JYP of the Finnish Elite League, as JYP finds itself in fifth place in the Finnish standings at 56 points after 46 games, one point behind the Espoo Blues. The 6’3” 209-pound defenseman has six points in JYP’s last eight games, even though the team has not only put up 16 goals during that stretch, winning six of the games, two by shutout. Nikolov’s goal and five assists have bolstered his numbers closer to what was hoped for this season at two goals and 11 assists in 37 games, making him second on JYP in defenseman-scoring behind Jari Korhonen. The 27-year old Nikolov, who has been pairing with Petri Virolainen most of this season, is in the second year of a three-year contract with JYP, after that, it’s anybody’s guess where Nikolov could end up. The fact the Sharks have maintained ties with Nikolov since 1994, even though he’s always remained in Europe in the Czech Extraleague, and now the Finnish Elite League, may mean the two-way defenseman could still end up in Cleveland some day, as Nikolov does have the size, skill, and physicality to succeed in the AHL level.
Unfortunately, none of the Sharks’ other European prospects are making much of a positive impact.
Fellow Czech Robert Jindrich is probably second behind Nikolov on the list right now, playing in Sweden with Timra for the second year after playing three seasons with the Kentucky Thoroughblades, then the Sharks’ AHL affiliate. (Since purchased by the Sharks and moved to Cleveland, now known as the Barons.) Jindrich has been playing on Timra’s third pairing, usually with Daniel Casselstahl, but occasionally Sanny Lindstrom. In the 14 games Timra has played since Hockey’s Future’s last Shark European prospect update, Jindrich has put up a power play goal and an assist, giving the 26-year old Czech two points in 31 games. These numbers are far below expectations for Jindrich, who missed 13 games due to an abdominal injury. That said, after battling for a spot on San Jose in training camp in 1999 and two solid seasons in the AHL, Jindrich has not performed up to offensive expectations. Sweden Prospects and Hockey’s Future’s Sweden Editor says that Jindrich’s defensive abilities seem to be improving though, countering his lack of offense somewhat as Timra’s 4th or 5th defenseman. Although Jindrich is putting up points, Timra is, as the club finds itself in second place behind Västra Frölunda with 25 wins, 12 losses, and 7 ties. If Timra does not decide to re-sign Jindrich, it is likely that he will return to his native Czech Republic, possibly with Plzen again, the Czech Extraleague club he played on for six seasons before coming to North America.
Tero Määttä is probably the highest profile Shark prospect in this report, but his performance this season hasn’t been particularly impressive. Määttä started the season with the Espoo Blues, was loaned to Ässät, playing six games as the final three games were lost to a suspension for an illegal hit. Määttä has started in Espoo’s last three games alongside Czech ace-defenseman Jiri Vykoukal, but Hockey’s Future Finland reporter Pekka Lampinen says that Määttä is not playing on the first pairing, merely playing with Vykoukal when he does see the ice. The 6’1” 214-pound defenseman finds himself as the club’s sixth defenseman, although Lampinen reports that many Blues fans would like to see him lowered to 7th or even off the team. On the other hand, Mike Rathje had a corps of fans who hated him because they could for many seasons, and some still do. Not known for offensive output in his last two season the Finnish Elite League, Määttä only has two assists in 40 games. Although the 21-year old defenseman has 79 penalty minutes, Määttä only has eight penalty minutes in his last 13 games. (Two 10 minute misconduct and a 25 minute penalty comprise the majority of Mäattä’s penalty minutes.) Given his popularity in Finland isn’t particularly high, and the fact Määttä did fare okay at training camp, next season might be the year to move Määttä to the AHL, where the Sharks can take charge in his development, where the Finn needs to work on just about everything except enthusiasm for the game. Most notably, Määttä’s acceleration and stick skills need work, but the Finn does have a certain upside as a 6th or 7th defenseman in the NHL. The Finn does have a sturdy build for a 21-year old player.
Also playing in Finland is Pasi Saarinen, a strong physical defenseman drafted in the 8th round of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft (256th overall). The 25-year old Finn, like Määttä, hasn’t put up much offense, with only 2 goals and 1 assist in 44 games on HIKF’s third defensive pairing with Nicklas Hedberg. Lampinen says that, although Hedberg is shakey himself, Saarinen’s deteriorating play the past two season’s is only his own fault. Saarinen’s penalty minutes have picked up lately, with 14 in his last five games, giving the 5’11” 197-pound defenseman 51 for the season. Saarinen’s most redeeming quality is his fitness level, notably his musculature. That said, it’s unlikely that Saarinen will be brought over the North America. Were Saarinen to be brought over, he’d likely start out as a 5th or 6th defenseman. The Finn would definitely be an upgrade over Robert Mulick, and the Barons could only hope that the Sharks could send Saarinen to Cleveland now, as the team is ravaged by injuries.
Rounding out the field is center/right wing Michal Macho, who must be missing playing for Martin, his original club in the Slovakian Extraleague before he signed with perennial powerhouse Slovan Bratislava. With Slovan, the two-way center has found himself on the right wing on the 4th line much of the season. The 5’11” 172-pound Macho has not tallied a point in Slovan’s last 19 regular season games. The 21-year old forward, who played for the Slovakian WJC team in 2000 and 2001, also did not score in any of Slovan’s the games in the Continental Cup Superfinal Jan. 10 through the 12. (Slovan finished fifth of the eight teams, although every team did not play every other team in the Superfinal.) There’s little doubt that the 2002-03 season will be one Macho would rather forget. If San Jose had/has any interest in bringing Macho over, even just for ECHL duty to start with, now is the time.
Jesse Fibiger in Europe
Shark prospect Jesse Fibiger was loaned to Team Canada for the country’s participation in the Sweden Hockey Games tournament in Sweden. Team Canada finished third behind Russia and Sweden with one win, two shoot-out loses, and one loss. Fibiger found himself paired with Jamie Heward on the team’s first pairing. The 6’3” 220-pound Victoria, British Columbia native did not put up any points for Team Canada. The 24-year old defenseman was originally drafted by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in the seventh round of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft, but the Sharks signed Fibiger as a free agent out of the University of Minnesota-Duluth on Aug. 15, 2001. In his 51 games with the Cleveland Barons this season, Fibiger has three goals and nine assists along with 57 penalty minutes. If in fact rumors at ESPN.com and Faceoff.com are correct, and Bryan Marchment is traded, Fibiger could find himself recalled to the Sharks if John Jakopin’s concussions continue to keep him out of action. (Of course, another temporary 7th defenseman could be acquired in any such trade, or in any trade involving Owen Nolan, another Shark finding himself in trade rumors despite more spirited play of late.)